ATLANTA — Aaron Nola allowed two runs in seven innings May 15, and still, the Phillies lost. He gave up one run in seven innings May 5, and still, the Phillies lost. He tossed seven scoreless innings April 24, and guess what? Yep, the Phillies lost.
If ever a pitcher deserved the chance to finally finish his own game, after all that, it was Nola.
So, with a four-run lead in tow Thursday night, there wasn’t much discussion. Nola came back out for the ninth inning despite having thrown 101 pitches. And although he didn’t finish it off, the Phillies, for a change, did it for him in a split-salvaging 4-1 victory over the Atlanta Braves.
“Can’t say enough about how he pitched the ball today,” catcher J.T. Realmuto said after the Phillies won a Nola-pitched game for the first time since opening day, a span of 48 days and eight starts. “He was incredible.”
Indeed, Nola dazzled. His curveball, typically a bellwether pitch in his starts, was nearly unhittable. He threw 35 of them and got 10 swings and misses. And his sinker was so confounding that William Contreras snapped his bat in half after striking out on the pitch in the seventh inning.
“It was a good feeling,” Nola said. “I just wanted that pitch to be down, and lucky he swung over it.”
The Phillies needed this from Nola. Badly. They had a rough week in Atlanta, even rougher than usual at a ballpark where they have won only 16 times in 44 games since it opened in 2017.
After absorbing a gut-wrenching, manager-questioning walk-off loss Tuesday night, they fell on an exceedingly rare wild-pitch/center-fielder error Wednesday night. Realmuto called the mood around the team “somber.”
In that case, Nola provided a pick-me-up, ironic given how often he has been let down in recent weeks by a lack of run support and a combustible bullpen.
“He’s been probably victimized by bad luck as much as any pitcher we’ve had,” manager Joe Girardi said. “But he pitched an awesome game. He was great.”
As usual, the Phillies didn’t hit much for Nola save for Realmuto’s solo homer in the third inning and a two-run double by Odúbel Herrera in the seventh. But Nola didn’t need it. He scattered five hits, didn’t issue a walk, and recorded 10 strikeouts.
The Braves had a two-on, one-out rally in the second inning but came up empty. They notched back-to-back two-out hits in the third, but Nola whiffed Matt Olson to extinguish that threat.
After that, Nola retired nine batters in a row and 17 of the next 18.
“He really had [the sinker] going, away to righties,” Realmuto said. “He was starting it off the plate and running it back and keeping it on the outer-third, where there’s not a lot of damage. I’d say it was probably the best I’ve seen that pitch.”
Especially the one to Contreras.
“That one dropped off the table,” Realmuto said. “It was a perfect pitch. That kind of encapsulates his whole outing today.”
When Nola walked into the dugout after the eighth inning, Girardi checked only to see how he felt. He agreed to send Nola out for the ninth with the caveat that he’d replace him if anyone got on base.
After striking out Austin Riley, Nola gave up a double to Matt Olson that went over right fielder Nick Castellanos’ head. Out came Girardi and in came closer Corey Knebel, who wild-pitched home one run but kept the drama to a minimum by recording the final two outs.
“I always want to throw a complete game,” Nola said. “The more innings I can throw, the better. But the win, obviously, is huge. It’s definitely more important.”
Said Realmuto: “After what happened the last couple of days, being able to come out with a split is big for us.”
Back in the swing
In addition to representing the biggest swing of the game for the Phillies, Realmuto’s homer capped a series in which he seemed to finally come around at the plate.
When the Phillies arrived in Atlanta, Realmuto was stuck in a 10-for-68 rut that lowered his average to .224 and left him tinkering with his leg kick to improve his timing. But the workhorse catcher went 2-for-4 with a triple Monday night, then had one hit in each of the next three games.
Realmuto finished 5-for-11 with two walks and two hit by pitches against the Braves.
With center fielder Mickey Moniak closing in on a return from his broken right hand, Herrera delivered two hits, including the two-run double in the seventh inning against Braves lefty Will Smith.
A little competition never hurt anyone, as the saying goes. The Phillies were mulling whether to have Moniak join them in New York this weekend after three games at double-A Reading, a move that likely would cut into Herrera’s playing time.
Herrera can ward off that challenge, at least for a little while, by hitting as he did against the Braves. He crushed a 431-foot solo homer off the facing of the restaurant beyond the right-field fence Wednesday night and had two hits in the series finale.
Falter gets the call
As expected, the Phillies will call up lefty Bailey Falter from triple A to make a spot start in Friday night’s series opener in New York.
The move is designed to give each starter one extra day of rest in a stretch of 16 games in as many days. Zach Eflin will face the Mets on Saturday night, followed by Zack Wheeler on Sunday.